August 6, 2009
Checking the Numbers
As the trading deadline drew to a close last Friday, the world learned of a few failed blockbuster deals, one of which would have supposedly sent Adrian Gonzalez and Heath Bell to Mannywood in exchange for James Loney, Russell Martin, and Blake DeWitt, among others. Whether or not the trade ever had any traction remains up in the air, but my initial reaction included a hint of hesitancy for the Dodgers to part ways with Loney. Granted, I catch a Vin Scully-announced game on the baseball package every now and then as the hours pass by at night, but my knowledge of Loney had been reliant upon his reputation as opposed to the underlying data. The opinions of several sources as well as my own amateur scouting painted a picture of a player with a sweet swing, one sure to produce gap power, a great eye at the dish, sound instincts and slick glovework, a confluence of characteristics capable of creating an All-Star talent. After trekking to his stats page, though, I sat in disbelief, jaw agape in an exaggerated fashion over the extents to which his performance has fallen off.
After posting EqA marks north of .290 in both his age-22 and age-23 seasons, Loney dropped to a modest .271 last season, and he currently seems to be on pace for another season in that general vicinity. While his production this past year and a half is nothing to necessarily spit on, Marc Normandin recently noted that the league-average first baseman has produced an EqA of around .283 in 2007-08 and has improved to around .290 through the first few months of the current campaign. Add in that Loney's defensive statistics have not yet matched his reputation for excellence, falling somewhere in the slightly below average range, and it seems as though this current version of himself approximates the replacement level for the position. Things aren't entirely sour on the Loney front-he makes contact and reaches base at decent enough clips, but he just does not hit for nearly enough power to justify any sort of hesitancy when a deal involving Adrian Gonzalez comes to mind. In fact, his precipitous power decline from slugging .559 to .538 to .434 to .404 has invited ample amounts of speculation as to whether or not he will ever develop and sustain enough pop to merit full-time, non-platoon duty as a first baseman.
For starters, his devolution, if you will, can be aptly summed by a blurb in the 2005 edition of the Baseball Prospectus annual, if we make a minor substitution, replacing the word 'prospect' with 'productive everyday first baseman':
Well, at least he's still young, and serves as a nice cautionary tale regarding Cory Dunlap. Loney had a very nice season in the Pioneer League right out of high school, and has pretty much been in a tailspin since. He was largely uncomfortable, even overmatched, by the pitching in the Southern League. He's young enough so that he can take a couple shots at a given league, perhaps twice, and still have a very nice career. But we've now got 170 AB that say he's something of a prospect, and about 800 that say he's not. The Dodgers hope Loney's struggles are the result of the broken wrist and broken finger he's suffered the last couple years, but he'll have to prove himself either way.
Loney essentially has a small sample in which he looks quite capable of progressing into a force to be reckoned with, and a larger, contradictory sample in which his upside looks akin to the expected performance of someone like Adam LaRoche. While emulating LaRoche is not awful in and of itself, little leaguers do not necessarily pray at night in the hopes to someday become the next Adam LaRoche. Moving forward, blurbs in the annual continued to attribute his sapped power in the minors to hand and wrist injuries, expecting that his keen eye and discipline at the plate would remain intact nevertheless, potentially yielding a greater power output as the natural maturation process occurred.
His 2006 season consisted of a few separate trips to the big leagues, resulting in an overall line of .284/.342/.559 that was not consistently on display. From April 4-21, Loney hit a measly .225/.295/.300 in 44 PA, a small sample of course, but enough to keep him off of the roster once injuries to others healed. His second stint, running from July 29-August 16, featured a .313/.389/.625 line in 36 PA, though he was still yet to go deep in a major league game. Recalled once more on September 2 and with the big league club until the end of the season, Loney would hit .333/.355/.833 with four home runs in 31 PA, the type of production that worked in conjunction to his prior call-up to distinctly impress those with decision-making powers, regardless of the small sample in which the data was accrued.
The overall .284/.342/.559 may have been a tad misleading given that Loney managed to hit five triples in 102 at-bats, a pace well off his rates in subsequent seasons. Playing statistical 'what-if,' were his six doubles and five triples adjusted to a more realistic distribution of nine doubles and two triples, Loney would have finished the year with a high, but substantially lower, .529 mark. Even if this adjustment doesn't float your boat, it is pretty easy to accept that .559 was nowhere near his true-talent slugging percentage. Some luck came his way in his next season as well, as a .352 BABIP helped pave the way to a .331/.381/.538 slash line in his 375 trips to the plate. What's quite peculiar is the comparison between those major league numbers and his pedestrian .279/.345/.382 in Triple-A in the same season. While triples may have exaggerated Loney's power supply in his first year, his second-year slugging percentage reaped the benefits of some extra hits due to a higher than expected batting average on balls in play.
All of which brings us, in a sort of roundabout way, to the idea that in spite of those slash lines remaining über-impressive, even with adjustments here and there based on the ages in which the production occurred, it is quite possible that our expectations were slightly off course. Perhaps, in retrospect, Loney's true talent is closer to the .430-.450 SLG, and his first 500 PAs in the major leagues were comprised of beneficial fluctuation.
Last year, in a full season, Loney sustained his BB%, K%, GB%, and FB% but experienced a BABIP drop from .352 to .320. Couple that with a 7.9 percent HR/FB on the heels of a 13.9 percent rate the year prior, and the cumulative result was a rather unimpressive .289/.338/.434 line, with just 13 long balls. That season would work well for a middle infielder or even potentially an extremely slick-fielding first baseman, but both UZR and +/- pegged Loney as markedly below average that year; he hit like a middle infielder and fielded with little range.
Part of the issue involved a deteriorated ability to handle heaters. While an increase in fastballs seen, from 58.6 to 60.6 percent between 2007-08, can be classified as marginal at best, linear-weights run values on a per-100-pitches basis placed Loney 1.42 runs above average, right alongside the likes of Matt Holliday and Aramis Ramirez. Last season, that figure fell to -0.17 runs, and it has only risen to 0.16 runs this season, suggesting that Loney produces runs at an average rate on fastballs, which is a bit alarming considering that pitchers are throwing him heaters more frequently than ever before. Overall, Loney has held his own against all types of pitches, hovering right around the league average, but he has yet to stand out against any particular piece of a pitcher's repertoire.
In 450 PAs through Wednesday, Loney's .290/.358/.404 has left much to be desired, but the key caveat here is that the problem deals specifically with power output. Loney has sustained or improved his walk rate, has remained above .300 in the BABIP department, looks particularly stable in terms of balls-in-play rates, and is holding true relative to getting his bat on the ball. The first two components of the slash line are fine, as many major leaguers would love to call a career .299 batting average and a .354 OBP their own, but a .114 ISO is only slightly off the track record Chone Figgins has established over the past few seasons.
A major cause for concern and a potential solution to some of the power woes can be found in Loney's plate discipline data, primarily his rates of swinging at and contact made on pitches both in and out of the zone:
Year O-SW% O-C% Z-SW% Z-C% 2007 31.3 75.6 68.2 95.4 2008 26.6 73.8 63.4 92.8 2009 22.5 77.9 61.8 94.4 MLB Avg. 25.0 61.6 66.1 88.0 O-SW%: Percentage of swings at pitches outside the zone O-C%: Percentage of contact made on those swings Z-SW%: Percentage of swings at pitches inside the zone Z-C%: Percentage of contact made on those swings
Since 2007, Loney has simply stopped swinging to the point that it appears to be more detrimental than anything else, especially because his contact rates have not only been high, but sustainable to boot. If he were struggling to get his bat on the ball, reducing swings may be an optimal solution, but Loney has fared well above the mean in terms of contact on outside pitches, and has always been above average at getting his bat on pitches within the zone. This proposition conjures up reminders of the stolen-base equilibrium, where those with high success rates should try to do so more frequently; it's worth risking a slightly lower rate to try and do it more often, given the quality of the performance.
Everything to this point has focused on Loney himself and the potential underlying causes for his severe power outage, but are there any precedents for what has happened to him? Throughout the season, we have discussed historical precedents in this space with regards to massive upticks in ground-ball frequency, a la Cliff Lee, and vast jumps in on-base percentage, a la Pedro Feliz. Let's go for the trifecta, checking for examples in which young players experienced a massive drop in their slugging percentage, simultaneously investigating whether or not the power was ever regained. The list of comparables in this regard is bound to be quite short given the lower percentages of hitters making the majors at such a young age, let alone mustering total base rates in excess of .530.
The database work began with a search for all three-year spans for players from 1954-2006 in which at least 150 PA were amassed in each of the three seasons. From there, only those who progressively declined were kept, meaning SLG3 < SLG2 < SLG1, since the goal here involves attempting to replicate the power-sapping phenomenon currently plaguing Loney. Additionally, SLG1 had to be greater than SLG3 by at least 100 points, based on Loney's drop from .538 to .404. The slugging percentage and plate appearances for all remaining players in what would amount to the fourth and fifth seasons were then joined to the table, affording the opportunity to investigate how those with severe declines in the power facet of their game fared in the next couple of seasons. The results were further partitioned to include only those 25 years old or younger, with initial slugging percentages between .500 and .580.
A grand total of just 14 players were returned, but 10 improved their slugging percentage in that fourth season by at least 40 points, eight of whom improved by 50 or more points, indicating that there are several precedents for young players losing a wide array of their power and recovering it to a significant extent. Unfortunately, very few of these players were able to sustain some semblance of that power in the year after, suggesting that the power renaissance was short-lived. From 1954 onward, only three players age 25 or younger-Paul Konerko, Bill Skowron, and Jeff Burroughs-lost 100 or more points of slugging percentage over a three-year span, regained significant power in the fourth season, and sustained it into the fifth.
With that in mind, James Loney certainly has his work cut out for him given the dearth of comparables in this regard, and even then, unlike the aforementioned trio, he bats lefty. He may improve and regain the power witnessed in his first year and a half as a big-league first baseman, but history certainly is not on his side, and the time is quickly approaching when we may have to look past the potential and realize that players of Adam LaRoche's ilk comprise his upside instead of serving as a launching pad to fantabulous performance.